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Shahnama (The Book of Kings) by Firdausi (934-1020 CE) is indeed a great piece of Persian literature. Written under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030 CE) it contains 60,000 verses which cost Firdausi 30 years of labor. Eastern poets are known for flattery but Shahnama also displays fury, hence, where we read so many praises of the Sultan we also come across a few rebukes.

It is said Sultan Mahmud had promised to pay one gold coin for each verse that Firdausi composed. However, on the completion of Shahnama, he did not keep his promise and instead of 60,000 gold coins he paid silver coins. When the coins were delivered to the poet, he said, what a good alchemist Sultan is, he can change the gold into silver. Firdausi rejected the reward  and distributed it to his three attendants, he then stained the acclaim he wrote for the Sultan by adding a satire to it. Sultan responded by punishing him in a cruel way, by getting him crushed under the elephant’s feet. Firdausi had to run for his life leaving behind his satire in the Shahnama and his name in the list of great poets. Shahnama is translated in English by James Atkinson, below is an excerpt from the satire.

Fear thee? I fear not man, but God alone,

I only bow to His Almighty throne.

Inspired by Him my ready numbers flow;

Guarded by Him I dread no earthly foe.

Thus in the pride of song I pass my days,

Offering to Heaven my gratitude and praise.

From every trace of sense and feeling free,

When thou art dead, what will become of thee ?

If thou shouldst tear me limb from limb, and cast

My dust and ashes to the angry blast,

Firdausi still would live, since on thy name,

Mahmud, I did not rest my hopes of fame

In the bright page of my heroic song,

But on the God of Heaven, to whom belong

Boundless thanksgivings, and on Him whose love

Supports the Faithful in the realms above,

The mighty Prophet! none who e’er reposed

On Him existence without hope has closed.

And thou would’st hurl me underneath the tread

Of the wild elephant, till I were dead !

Dead! by that insult roused, I should become

An elephant in power, and seal thy doom –

Mahmud ! if fear of man hath never awed

Thy heart, at least fear thy Creator, God.

Full many a warrior of illustrious worth,

Full many of humble, of imperial birth,

Tur, Salim, Jamshid, Minuchihr the brave,

Have died; for nothing had the power to save

These mighty monarchs from the common doom;

They died, but blest in memory still they bloom.

Thus kings too perish – none on earth remain,

Since all things human seek the dust again.

O, had thy father graced a kingly throne,

Thy mother been for royal virtues known,

A different fate the poet then had shared,

Honours and wealth had been his just reward

But how remote from thee a glorious line!

No high, ennobling ancestry is thine;

From a vile stock thy bold career began,

A Blacksmith was thy sire of Isfahan.

Alas! from vice can goodness ever spring ?

Is mercy hoped for in a tyrant king ?

Can water wash the Ethiopian white?

Can we remove the darkness from the night?

The tree to which a bitter fruit is given,

Would still be bitter in the bowers of Heaven;

And a bad heart keeps on its vicious course;

Or if it changes, changes for the worse;

Whilst streams of milk, where Eden’s flowrets blow,

Acquire more honeyed sweetness as they flow.

The reckless king who grinds the poor like thee,

Must ever be consigned to infamy!

 

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